By David G. Bonagura, Jr.
“But he performed an even greater task, that union of reason with faith that is the mark of a Christian scholar.” So wrote Gerald J. Russello, then 27 years of age, about Christopher Dawson, the eminent Catholic historian, in his introduction to Christianity and European Culture: Selections from the Work of Christopher Dawson. Now, looking back on a life that gleamed with generosity, energy, and dedication, we can say that Gerald, taken from us all too soon, not only performed this “greater task” himself. He embodied it through his work, his myriad friendships, and his eager willingness to serve as a mentor for his younger peers.
Gerald was a lawyer by trade, having attended a top law school, clerked for two judges, and worked as partner in two major New York City law firms. He co-authored a book on securities law, his specialty, and taught law as an adjunct professor. Of all his legal duties, teaching was his favorite, and there is no mystery why: Gerald was, to the depth of his soul, an intellectual and a scholar. The law took his blood, sweat, and tears, but ideas consumed his imagination. And it is the imagination, as his mentor Russell Kirk wrote, that “is the moving force in private life and in public life.”
It seemed like Gerald lived two lives — the public life of a lawyer and the private life of a scholar. Those who knew him regularly marveled how he found the time to do both. “The law is a harsh master,” he wrote to me once when forced to withdraw from a planned gathering of friends. When, amidst his legal duties, he was praised for his scholarly output that appeared in dozens of magazines, journals, and websites, he joked that he had elves working for him behind the scenes.
Yet, in reality, these two worlds were fused by the motive power of Gerald’s imagination: his sincere Catholic faith. Practically, he used his legal expertise in multiple Catholic publications, deftly explaining for lay readers the impact of the latest judicial and governmental rulings on believers and for the Catholic Church. He was writing about threats to religious liberty long before the term became fashionable, warning of potential dangers and counseling appropriate action. Contemporary resurrections of the anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment attacking parochial schools instantly found themselves in his legal crosshairs.
Institutionally, Gerald cared deeply for the Catholicity of his high school and college almae matres, Regis and Georgetown respectively. He was regularly in touch with friends connected to both institutions to learn the latest happenings. He would listen as if he had all the time in the world, and when he promised his help, in the form of donations or contacting potential speakers for the campus, he meant it.
These practical and institutional works stemmed from his personal faith, which was deeply held but never trumpeted. He knew that all he did as lawyer, scholar, editor, husband, and father was, in the motto of the Jesuits who educated him for eight years, for the greater glory of God. In his work, his scholarship, and his life, faith and reason found the same happy union that they enjoyed in Dawson’s.
One thing Gerald never sought was glory for himself or his works. Yes, he was proud of his intellectual work and of his service to the Russell Kirk Center as editor of The University Bookman. But he never talked about himself, and he was quick to deflect any deserved praise to others before he would turn the conversation back on his interlocutor. He did this with me time and again for two decades; when he spoke, it seemed like I was the only interest he had.
Humility is the foundation of Christian charity. It is little wonder, then, why Gerald was so generous in sharing his time and talents with others. In his sixteen plus years as editor of the Bookman, he took constant delight in giving young writers a chance to review books. Having remained grateful to his high school teachers throughout his life, Gerald thanked them by paying the debt forward to the next generation of scholars.
In true Gerald fashion, this charity was behind the scenes. In more recent years, he quietly lent his enthusiasm and expertise to fledgling Catholic organizations as a board member and advisor. His remarkable generosity was seemingly limitless. There was one dark place, though, where his charity shined publicly and offered a welcome respite from the wailing within Tartarus: Twitter. Gerald loved Twitter, and his endless flow of reflections, queries, retweets, and occasional mild criticisms were sent with his characteristic cheer and charity. The depravity that Twitter can generate repels some; not Gerald. He did with Twitter as he did with the law, scholarship, and friendship: he tried to elevate everyone by fixating on the true and the good, wherever that might be found.
The breadth of Gerald’s intellectual interests was complemented by the magnanimity of his soul. He was a faithful steward in so many fields and to so many people. But there was never a doubt that he served others because he was God’s servant first. May he share in the reward of his divine Master forever.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. teaches at St. Joseph’s Seminary, New York. He is the author of Steadfast in Faith: Catholicism and the Challenges of Secularism and Staying with the Catholic Church: Trusting God’s Plan of Salvation.
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